I confess, Manila has always intimidated me. It, with its jeepneys and pedestrians and ever-present buzz of activity.
And the traffic. I’m used to EDSA and C5, but Manila is a whole different ballgame.
Thing is, Manila’s the capital of the Philippines. It’s steeped in history. If I wanted to learn more about my heritage, this was the place to start. Plus I really, really wanted to go to San Sebastian Church.
So I enlisted the help of my architect friend Macy. We spent last Sunday walking and commuting around Manila, and that was the day I learned to love this city. I finally realized what I’d been missing out on. There’s so much beauty amongst its chaos, so many stories in its worn-down buildings. One day was far from enough time to explore everything it has to offer, but it’s a start.
Here are some of the places we visited—and I wholeheartedly recommend you visit them too!
San Sebastian Church
This right here made the commute worthwhile. San Sebastian Church’s towering spires and bright façade looks so out of place among the concrete buildings surrounding it that it immediately commanded my attention. Against the backdrop of the blue sky, the church appears all the more ethereal.
I came here knowing two things—that it’s the only all-steel church in Asia, and that Gustave Eiffel played a role in its design. Yes, the man behind the Eiffel Tower. Imagine my surprise when Macy told me that was under debate, since there’s no solid proof to back it up. Whether or not it’s true, the San Sebastian Church is still amazing and unforgettable and a real Philippine gem.
Even more stunning than its exterior is its jaw-dropping, one-of-a-kind interior. Most of the Gothic churches I’ve been to struck me as gloomy and stifling, but this is airy and relatively well-lit. While it’s smaller than I’d expected, it’s the perfect size for an intimate Mass—or in this case, an intimate wedding.
Yes, we crashed a wedding. We crashed a total of five weddings that day. We did attend the Mass before this, though. And then we snuck up to the choir balcony, because how could we not? The view from there was perfection.
The rusting of the steel structure adds character to the church, but it’s a huge hazard too. It needs major restoration work, and apparently, it would cost much less to just knock it down and replace it with a replica. Disappointing, right? That’s all the more reason you should go here now.
Manila City Hall
On our way to Intramuros, we passed this pale yellow building, and I immediately asked our pedicab driver to stop for a moment (spot him there on the right side of the photo). I’m so glad he did, because this front view of the City Hall is beautiful, especially with the patterned floor.
Standing in front of the building’s south entrance is this statue of Arsenio H. Lacson, said to have been the best mayor of Manila. You can’t see it here, but the City Hall actually has a domed clock tower that lights up at night.
I took this shot while we were driving against the flow of traffic. Good thing there were only a few cars on the road!
Known as the Walled City, this is the heart of Manila. This was the center of the Spanish government, and though it’s been heavily damaged, it’s still a trove of cultural treasures. Like most Filipino students, I’ve been on field trips here, but I hardly remember them. And so I decided to refresh my memory the best way I could—by exploring it by foot.
Intramuros: San Agustin Church
Our first stop in Intramuros was this Baroque Church that just happens to be one of our country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The San Agustin Church is one massive block of a building and was originally built by the Spaniards. It’s been rebuilt twice since then, but it’s still known as the oldest stone church in the Philippines.
The façade of the church in no way prepared me for what it looked inside. How grand is this interior? If the beauty of the San Sebastian Church is in its steel construction and stained-glass windows, the beauty of San Agustin is in its ornamentation. Everywhere I looked, there was something to marvel at—from the Parisian chandeliers to the scene-stealing pulpit to the painted ceiling.
The ceiling’s painted in a trompe l’oeil style that makes it appear like it’s three-dimensional. We wanted to go up to the balcony, but we needed a permit to do so. We couldn’t even explore the church because of all the weddings that were lined up that day. This was the third we caught—the second had just finished when we arrived.
Here comes our third bride of the day ready to make her grand entrance through these exquisitely carved doors. We went back here after visiting the Manila Cathedral, but there was another wedding in progress. So if you really want to make the most of your visit to Intramuros, it might be best to come on a weekday. That way, you’ll avoid the matrimonial rush.
The church has a museum right beside it, so if you’re into history and artifacts, you might want to head inside. The entrance fee ranges from P40 to P100, with special discounts for students and senior citizens.
Intramuros: Manila Cathedral
Next up, the Manila Cathedral. It’s no UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it boasts of having welcomed three Popes—Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and, just this month, Pope Francis. Plus, you know, it’s the seat of the Archdiocese of Manila. Like the San Agustin Church, it’s been rebuilt several times. In fact, the official website counts this as the eighth cathedral, constructed after the bombing of Intramuros.
The Cathedral just finished a two-year renovation, and now it’s outfitted with high-tech equipment, better lighting, and earthquake precautions. They didn’t allow photography, but I snuck in this shot (oops). Compared to the two previous churches, this is brighter and more modern. You can see the upgrades even in the chapels along its lateral naves. Oh, and it has air-conditioning, which is a major selling point for weddings. Speaking of weddings, this was number four.
Right in front of the cathedral is Intramuros’ main square Plaza de Roma, which is marked by this statue of Spain’s King Carlos IV. As Macy pointed out, this shows the typical Spanish colonial planning, which situates the church in the center of the city. This plaza is also surrounded by several government buildings that you’ll see in the gallery below.
The Manila Cathedral’s a sight to behold from every angle, but I’ve got to say that this is my favorite view of it—its rear. It truly looks like something you would see in Europe. I’m just wondering why they left a portion of the dome unpainted.
Intramuros: Fort Santiago
We didn’t enter Fort Santiago, because we’d already been there, and we were on a budget. Still, I had to include it, since it’s a must-visit for all Intramuros first-timers. This was where Dr. Jose Rizal was jailed before his execution. Here you’ll see the Rizal Shrine and the monumental gate that’s known for its reliefs.
University of Santo Tomas
Because Macy missed her alma mater, we rode a jeep to UST, which, incidentally enough, used to be located inside Intramuros. Like the Manila Cathedral, UST has hosted the same three popes—twice, in the case of Pope John Paul II! Though it doesn’t look like it, the building above is actually the University Church, also known as the Santisimo Rosario Church.
Here’s a view of the stately Main Building. Along with the church, this is one of the oldest buildings on campus. I asked Macy what architectural style this was supposed to be, and she said that it’s a mix of different styles.
This Arch of the Centuries is the first thing you’ll see when you enter the University’s main gate. It commemorates two of the school’s must important alumni—former president Manuel L. Quezon and national hero Dr. Jose Rizal. Macy told me that it’s tradition for all new students to walk under this arch on their first day. They have this superstition that if they pass through the arch again before graduation, they won’t finish college on time.
These three structures in UST are considered National Cultural Treasures. So yes, they were the perfect final stops on our one-day tour of Manila.
Because I had so much fun taking photos, here are a couple more shots!